Exhibition Review

Second Empire. Paris

To celebrate its thirtieth birthday, the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, put on a show entitled Spectaculaire Second Empire, 1852–1870 (closed 16th January) devoted to what in France is still considered a problematic era. To handle this ‘sulphurous’ topic, the museum’s director, Guy Cogeval, tells us, has proved a delicate exercise, requiring ‘sensitive abridgements’ (‘raccourcis épineux’). This may surprise more seasoned visitors, such as this reviewer, who did not find this version of the Second Empire terribly different from that so magnificently presented by a predominantly American team back in 1978.1 Well, Cogeval does admit that this exhibition was to some extent a homage to that earlier one.2 This was a smaller, but equally beautifully presented show, whose accompanying book is more to be commended for its essays dealing with specific issues than for scholarly cataloguing of individual items. A more selective approach, as well as being dictated by available space, was justified by the fact that major exhibitions have recently been devoted to some of the period’s less well-known artists, as well as by their already substantial representation in the Museum’s permanent collection. In addition, the Château de Compiègne has, in the last thirty years, assumed responsibility for showcasing the art of this period.

Like the annexe of the Grand Hôtel in Offenbach’s operetta La Vie Parisienne (Fig.54), which the audience knows to be as fraudulent as the habitués of its table d’hôte, Napoleon III, in the opinion of his father, may not really have been a Bonaparte, but only a Beauharnais and thus undeniably a member of his uncle’s family. So the Second Empire was perhaps nothing if not ‘spectaculaire’. The showmanship, theatricality and eclectic range of the art and design of the period were what Cogeval and his colleagues concentrated on. There seems to be some agreement that, despite the diversity of historical revivals and exotic references available to artists and designers of the time, there remains a flavour to many of their products which is decidedly Second Empire. The case was made by Ingres’s portrait of Madame Moitessier (cat. no.67; National Gallery, London), which served as the poster for the show. It is at once sumptuous and glacial. The derivation of the pose from a Pompeian mural is well-known; more unusual are the Japanese Imari vase and the Rococo side-table, indications of new and revived fashions with which Ingres is not generally associated.

The use of sculpture and architecture in traditional styles to provide an air of legitimacy to an upstart regime was in evidence in its first and largest single monumental undertaking, the joining up of the Louvre and the Tuileries palaces. Here the conjunction being made was with ancien régime royalty rather than with the First Empire. As time went by, the imperial couple, Napoleon III (Fig.52) and Eugénie, not especially artistically gifted, warmed to the task of introducing modern comforts and other enhancements to royal residences. In the process a distinctive revivalist style now known as Louis XVI-impératrice was spawned, nourished by Eugénie’s identification with Marie-Antoinette. Such interventions were presented in close detail by Arnaud Denis of the Mobilier National, and represented in the show by choice specimens of furniture and contemporary watercolours (nos.129–37). 

Of the two more striking propaganda paintings included in the exhibition, William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Napoleon III visiting the flood victims of Tarascon (1857; no.2) and Jean-Léon Gérôme’s  Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors (1861–64; no.26), the first seems indebted to Napoleonic precedents, while the second, set in the ballroom at Fontainebleau, shows the Imperial couple making a bid for continuity to rival Bourbon and Orléaniste claimants. Alongside these it might have been appropriate to include a related relief sculpture in which the Emperor is shown in grand historical magnanimous mode, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Napoleon III receiving the submission of Abd-el-Kader (1852; Musée des beaux-arts, Valenciennes), for some reason omitted from the recent Carpeaux shows in New York and Paris. The willingness of such artists from a variety of social backgrounds to project images like these must betoken a widespread sense that the Empire was all that stood between France and anarchy. The Bouguereau painting, for all its absurd aping of biblical and saintly miracle scenes, conveys a feeling of uplift by the most literal means, since the event is seen taking place round about roof level, floodwater providing the elevated liquid stage.

While historical references are still called for in such scenes as these, and elsewhere in the exhibition Puvis de Chavannes could be seen instilling new life into grand mural art with a strong classical inflection (nos.196 and 197), the trend over the period as a whole, under the influence of the middle-class market, was towards less pretentious genre paintings, whether these dealt with orientalist, historical or modern subjects. For the first time painting itself was being given a run for its money by photography, which encouraged a search for elusive effects, whether in bewilderingly bright light at the seaside or in the equally bewildering hurly-burly of the city undergoing transformation at the hands of Baron Haussmann. These tendencies came out particularly well in the sections devoted to portraiture and recreation, where fine works by Manet, Monet and Degas were to be found. But Courbet, who outrageously staged his own exhibition in 1855 in competition with concurrent official retrospectives for Ingres and Delacroix, was represented only by the portrait of his friend Pierre Joseph Proudhon (no.77) and some shy-eyed greyhounds belonging to the comte de Choiseul (no.98). Provocatively, none of those images of rural toil and poverty, by which many viewers at the time felt themselves threatened, were allowed to darken the horizon. It seemed to be left to Jules Breton, in his Bénédiction des blés en Artois (no.97; Fig.53), to lull us with an idealised vision of peasants in their Sunday best, who look as though at any moment they might launch into a Gounod chorus. The only indication that someone might misbehave here is the presence of an officious garde-champêtre. As if to reinforce the point, this painting was displayed in a corner surrounded by the impressive but faintly sinister ecclesiastical metalwork of Poussielgue-Rusand (no.211). 

So much that was characteristic of the epoch was elegantly shown here that it seems churlish to protest at omissions. There was one obvious blind spot, however, the lack of any representation of the conspicuous militarism of a regime which, even in its more liberal period thought fit to appoint as minister for the arts the veteran Maréchal Vaillant. Early on, James de Rothschild feared prophetically that Napoleon III’s comeuppance might be his fondness for playing ‘the toy soldier’.3 The 1850s, known as the ‘authoritarian Empire’, saw a rash of military statues go up all over France, and battle paintings by Vernet, Meissonnier, Détaille and Yvon continued to dominate Salon exhibitions. In this exhibition, however, the soldiery were reduced to the merest dots in watercolours showing the installations for important parades (see no.42), or were seen making chumps of themselves in Chéret’s poster for Offenbach’s Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein (no.169).

In an exhibition at the Château de Compiegne in 2008–09, the subject of Anglo-French emulation during the Second Empire was broached.4 In the present show it was given shorter shrift. Napoleon III’s international exhibitions of 1855 and 1867 were inspired by London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, which, in its turn was inspired by France’s Expositions des produits de l’industrie. The opening of the period known as the ‘Liberal Empire’ was announced in 1860 by the ratification of the Cobden–Chevalier free trade agreement between France and Britain. The short essay on this subject in the catalogue hardly does justice to the cross-Channel osmosis which occurred in these years. Formative periods in the early careers of the sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse and the graphic artist and poster designer Jules Chéret, which have been featured to a small extent in recent monographic exhibitions in France, are not referred to.5 In the show itself, Morel-Ladeuil’s electroplated Milton shield, executed for the Birmingham firm of Elkington & Co., and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is made to represent on its own a very considerable brain-drain, which had operated for a time to the benefit of British industry, a period during which much will have been learned by the French operatives. And finally, it perhaps falls to an English reviewer to point out a probable English inspiration for Prince Napoleon’s Pompeian house in the avenue Montaigne, which figures so largely in the exhibition (nos.140–52). Rather than Ludwig I of Bavaria’s austere Pompeianum in Aschaffenburg, it seems likely that Plon-Plon and his architect were following the example of the Crystal Palace Company, whose re-creations of Pompeian domestic interiors were opened at Sydenham in 1854. 

1 G. Marcus, ed.: exh. cat. The Second Empire. Art in France under Napoleon III, Philadelphia (Museum of Art), Detroit (Institute of Arts), and Paris (Grand Palais) 1987–79; it was reviewed in this Magazine, 121 (1979), pp.463–64. 

2 Catalogue: Spectaculaire Second Empire. Edited by Guy Cogeval, Yves Badetz and Marie-Paul Vial. 320 pp., incl. numerous col. and b. & w. ills. (Editions Skira, Paris, 2016), €45. ISBN 978–2–35433–216–7. Cogeval’s remarks are on p.28.

3 N. Fergusson: The World’s Banker, London 1998, pp.560–61.

4 E. Starcky and L. Chabanne, eds.: exh. cat. Napoléon III et la reine Victoria, une visite à l’Exposition Universelle, Compiègne (Musée National du Château), 2008–09; reviewed in this Magazine, 151 (2009), pp.121–23.

5 J. Hargrove and G. Grandjean, eds.: exh. cat. Carrier-Belleuse, le maître de Rodin, Compiègne (Palais de Compiègne) 2014; reviewed in this Magazine, 156 (2014), pp.551–52; and R. Bargiel and S. le Men, eds.: exh. cat. La Belle Epoque de Jules Chéret, de l’affiche au décor, Paris  (Musée des Arts Décoratifs), 2010; reviewed in this Magazine, 152 (2010), pp.694–95.